Snowpiercer – Murders on the Ice Express

A train ride is environmentally friendly and relaxing, the most beautiful landscapes pass by outside the window, you read a book or play on your cell phone and arrive at your destination wonderfully relaxed. Not so on the “Snowpiercer”. This train has no destination, it circles the earth forever. On board are the last survivors of a gigantic climate experiment: geoengineers tried to save the world from global warming by spraying CW7 refrigerant, but overshot the mark and the earth is now covered in a layer of ice. Since then, a few hundred people have been circling the earth in the “Snowpiercer” on an incredibly long track. The train and the track had already been built before the cold catastrophe by Wilford, a billionaire railroad freak, who translated his childhood model train dreams into an oversized global toy. A perpetual motion machine keeps the train running.

Comics as a source of inspiration

Who came up with such a crude story? Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette! Director Bong Joon-ho’s film is based on their French comics Le Transperceneige. The South Korean filmmaker has been a household name for cineastes at least since 2019, when he won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival with Parasite. And the same ingenuity as in Parasite runs through Snowpiercer, made six years earlier.

And how on earth can an interesting, coherent film be made out of a perpetual train ride? Well, there are quite a few films that are set almost exclusively in trains, airplanes, buses or even on (space) ships and manage to make dramaturgical capital out of this limitation of the location. One could mention Murder on the Orient Express or The Commuter and Non-Stop with Liam Neeson or Das Boot by Wolfgang Peterson.

A train with content

Compared to the aforementioned films, Joon-ho actually allows his characters a lot of space. The “Snowpiercer” is an extremely long train, which the “passengers” painfully feel at its end, when they try to work their way up to first class during a revolt. And it has many surprises in store. The train has been running circles for years, and an autocratic society has formed on board in which everyone has their place. At the bottom are the people at the end of the train. They are crammed into the smallest of spaces in carriages without windows, have to feed on the same protein bars over and over again – and every now and then they receive visitors from the front section of the train. They are disciplined, they are intimidated, every now and then a child is taken away from them.

The social pyramid in the horizontal

This arrangement makes Snowpiercer a textbook social parable. In Parasite, too, the gap between rich and poor, the struggle of the lower classes for a better life, plays a supporting role. Both films also have the influence of Quentin Tarantino in common. Glaring, exaggerated violence above all. In Snowpiercer there is also a dash of Wes Anderson. But there are also big differences. The basic setting, of course: science fiction here, real-life circumstances there. And if Parasite surprises with a twist à la M. Night Shyamalan, the story of Snowpiercer is much more straightforward – but even here a new surprise lurks behind every broken door. 

Breathtaking ice landscapes

Snowpiercer definitely delivers the more grandiose images: How the viewer’s eyes – and those of the wooden-class “passengers” – glaze over when the rebels have fought their way from their cramped, dirty train cars and land in cars with windows. Wow, daylight! Snow-white, glistening light! And what bizarre snowy landscapes, ice-covered mega-cities and frozen seas pass outside the windows. Breathtaking! The train rattles over dizzying viaducts, makes its way through tracks buried by avalanches, dives into tunnels, glides along mountain sides. 

From the wooden class to the club car

You get really addicted to these panoramic shots, but the action in the wagons is also captivating. The further the rebels work their way towards the front train part, the more candy-colored the wagon world becomes. How neatly the students and their teacher are dressed in the school wagon, how green the world is in the greenhouse wagon, how aesthetically the fish glide through the water in the aquarium wagon, how styled up are the wild dancers in the club wagon … The resisters and their opponents become fewer and fewer, fight on an ever higher level. And then the last ones made it to the very front – and we don’t want to spoil now!

Snowpiercer – that’s clear, is a worthy predecessor of Parasite. No wonder that the American channel TNT made a series out of it. The second season has just started on TNT and Netflix. But my tip: Definitely watch the original!

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